Although Microsoft has talked about updating the Windows user interface (UI) for a long time, the fruits of the company's internal efforts in this area are only now beginning to appear. During the development of Windows 2000, the company outlined its vision for three major architectural updates COM+, Storage+, and Forms+. COM+ shipped with Win2K, and Storage+ is currently on the back burner. Forms+, which Microsoft originally designed to meld the standard Win32 UI with HTML, has undergone several changes over the past few years. The results of this effort are showing up in some unexpected places.

Internet Explorer (IE) 5.5, which Microsoft released in July 2000, features virtually no new end-user features (other than a handy new Print Preview function), but it offers numerous improvements to make the integration of the Web and the Windows UI easier for developers.

Activity Centers, which debuted quietly in Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), are another example of Web and Windows UI components. Activity Centers are single-window applications that combine HTML and the Win32 API to help new and inexperienced users complete common yet infrequent tasks. Windows Me offers three Activity Centers: Help and Support, System Restore, and Windows Media Player 7, which is available separately for all Windows users. Microsoft originally planned to include a wider range of Activity Centers in Windows Me, so the next consumer Win2K version—Whistler Personal Edition, due in early 2001—will probably feature more of these Web-like applications.

You can find other examples of Forms+ technology in various Windows versions. The most recent MSN client software (i.e., MSN 6, code-named Mars) is an Activity Center-like application that provides a user-friendly Internet shell that shields inexperienced users from separate and comparably difficult applications. MSN 6 is Microsoft's first attempt at what the company calls a .NET (pronounced "dot net") user experience; MSN 6 forms the basis for the next Windows UI. And Microsoft recently began looking for developers who have experience building skinnable applications: programs with HTML-like UIs that users can easily modify. Whatever form the next Windows UI ultimately takes, one thing is certain: It will look and feel a lot more like the Web.